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Transformational leadership is the ‘Hero’s Journey’.


"Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us, the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world"
Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

In the work that I do as a facilitator and coach I am frequently exposed to an enormous amount of diversity. Exposure to a diversity of organisations, industries, people, experiences and cultural backgrounds is a common feature of the life of a consultant. It is somewhat of a paradox therefore that what strikes me most about the work that I do is not the diversity but the common ground that many people experience.  It is in facing the challenge to become the leaders their organisations need them to be where the common ground emerges.

In recognizing these shared experiences I am reminded of American scholar Joseph Campbell (1904 – 1987) who identified a common pathway people follow that he called the hero’s journey. His belief was that we all follow a similar path throughout our life (and career) journeys with distinct stages such as ‘the call to adventure’ and ‘crossing the threshold’ marking the way. Campbell studied various people, cultures and societies from significant stages throughout human history and recognized a common developmental sequence that became the basis for his life’s work.

Campbell’s framework of the hero’s journey has become widely recognized in popular culture with his notion of the hero strongly informing education, literature and film alike. George Lucas worked closely with Campbell when writing and developing the ‘Star Wars’ films.

A core theme of Cambell’s work is that all humans have the potential to access their inner hero. Finding one’s own inner strength and courage to develop and grow in the face of the myriad of challenges that life throws at us is the essence of the hero’s journey. It is my belief that the modern challenge of transformational leadership – how an individual leader understands himself/herself and recognises the need for his/her own personal transformation in order to help transform a team, department or organisation – is perfectly aligned with Campbell’s hero’s journey pathway (as outlined below).

It is beyond the scope of this blog to examine each of the stages that Campbell identified and draw the parallel to modern leadership challenges but let me play with a few.

The call to adventure is a departure from our ordinary world due to a major opportunity, challenge or crisis. The individual is faced with a situation where their current behaviours, mindset and leadership approaches are no longer suitable to the situation. Change is coming for us! The pace of, and appetite for change in contemporary organisations is producing many ‘calls to adventure’.

Refusal of the call is the resistance to change, and a denial about the need to change, that can make some managers virtually redundant and cause some organisations to face extinction. At less significant levels people fail to grab the great opportunities they are presented with. At first the hero is reluctant to risk the comfort of the ordinary and argues for no change.

Crossing the threshold is the point of commitment when the hero enters the ambiguous world of uncertainty and new dreams. The threshold is often guarded so that the hero has to show resolve. In modern business crossing the threshold often means that we are prepared to let go of a dependence on the knowledge and skills that got us to where we are and seek to open ourselves to further growth and development. Crossing the threshold is to risk failure.

Test allies and enemies is where the new world appears chaotic and the hero is clumsy making many mistakes. At the same time allies and enemies reveal themselves. When leaders set out to transform themselves and their organizations enemies naturally emerge. There will always be people who are beneficiaries of a current culture and seek to resist any change and battle the people driving it. Similarly if people are open to support there are always allies and friends available to help us who understand the need for significant change.

The ordeal, which may be a lengthy battle for the hero is the essence of the challenge and the point at which one soldiers on to reap the benefits of the brave new world. It can also be a point of retreat where the leader withdraws to a known or familiar landscape from the past where we abandon the gifts that are waiting for us. Success at this stage is often determined by how motivated people are to unlock their latent potential.

Return with the treasure. The insight gained on the journey now finds its real value when applied to the problems of the ordinary world. If a leader is courageous enough to persist with their efforts to change themselves and become the leader their organization needs them to be then treasures will be discovered. The treasure can take external forms in terms of new products, structures or clients. The treasure can also manifest internally through greater self-belief, resilience and inspiration.

Most modern organisations recognize the need to develop their leaders. What often gets missed is the extent of the real challenge when leaders seek to bring genuine (transformational) change on themselves and the people they manage.

It has long been recognized that the biggest impediment to successful change initiatives in organisations is the human dimension, how individuals change or adapt to new circumstances. Little progress has been made to properly address this with most change initiatives focusing on the structural elements at the organizational level, and on competency development at the individual level. The hero’s journey is a far more organic structure that accurately reflects the archetypal challenges we all experience when dealing with significant change.

It is heartening to know that while we all feel both challenged and alone during occasions of significant change there is a ‘map’ to guide us through this journey. It is a pathway that has marked the way for heroes from all of human history and is as relevant in today’s challenging times as it has ever been.

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